Few string quartets are as unstintingly praised, or as unerringly good, as the Emerson String Quartet. It is with deserved confidence that the group marks its 30th anniversary with a new recording of Brahms's three string quartets and the Piano Quintet in F Minor.
The key to the quartet's success seems to be an almost maniacal desire to keep moving, both physically (the two violinists, Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, swap places as leader, and the players often stand to perform) and also interpretively. They champion both classical and contemporary repertoire, playing everything from Beethoven and Mendelssohn to Shostakovich and Barber with uncompromising vigour.
They take this freshness into the studio, where their performance reveals every phrase marking and shudder of the bow. All the Emerson hallmarks are on this CD: muscular yet precise playing, combined with easy virtuosity. There are moments of luminous beauty in the playing - not least in the bitter-sweet andante movement of the third quartet - but there is no attempt to "pretty up" Brahms, whose chamber music often reaches for the light only to find an almost unbearable darkness. The quartet is not afraid to take us to that shadowy place.
At times, Leon Fleisher's piano dominates the ensemble in the quintet, but for the most part this is a sensitive recording of the piece, one of the jewels of chamber music.
What the Emerson String Quartet offers, rarely among even established quartets, is a musical openness to high drama without slop and sentiment. This is a disc to return to many times, and a fitting anniversary celebration from one of America's finest quartets.